St Helens Council has proposed to consult with families of children with special educational needs and disabilities over the introduction of fees for post-16 travel arrangements.
The move is one of several proposals on the table as the council look to address growing pressures to its Home to School Transport budget.
A new council report says since the introduction of the Children and Families Act 2014, which increased the statutory responsibility to provide education and training for students with SEND up to the age of 25 years, there has been a “significant increase” in expenditure on the budget.
A recent report into the issue published by Local Government Association said that between 2014 and 2018 the total national spend on home to school transport increased from £1.02bn to £1.08bn.
The report also identifies the main driver for this surge in expenditure as the increase provision of SEND transport, rising numbers of children with education, health and care (EHC) plans with complex needs and children and young people for whom the “nearest suitable school” is out of borough.
“The same is happening in St Helens; rising numbers of children and young people in receipt of EHC plans who are attending out of borough special schools, many of whom require individual transport, alongside increased numbers of 19 to 25 learners with complex needs attending out of borough specialist provision,” the council report says.
“This has resulted in significant pressure on the home to school transport budget.”
The report, which was presented to the council’s children and young people’s services overview and scrutiny panel this week, sets out a number of proposals in order to maintain a sustainable service.
One proposal is to consult with parents regarding a charge for the post-16 SEND transport.
Jason Pickett, assistant director for community and school support services, said the cost would be the equivalent in cost to a public service bus pass, and will “ensure and promote equality with young people who haven’t got any specialist needs”.
Mr Pickett said the report is a response to a previous decision taken by the council to apply transport fees for post-16 travel arrangements in 2018.
This prompted a coordinated response from several families, who accused the council of not giving parents/carers sufficient time to make informed choices and therefore failing in its legal duties.
Following the backlash, and days before the start of the new term, council chiefs informed families that it had “postponed” the SEND travel charges.
The council intends to consult with families again, in addition to key stakeholders, as part of a review of its SEND Home to School Transport Policy.
Mr Pickett said the review will ensure the policy is “sufficiently robust” moving forward, taking account of the changes.
He said this will provide clarity to families, setting out “very clearly” what it is going to offer parents.
Another proposal is to continue to explore other transport options.
This could include training children with SEND to enable them to use public transport.
Mr Pickett said: “There could be some investment in independent travel training for young people who are able to utilise public transport.
“So, to invest in training young people up to feel confident in accessing their own travel arrangements.”
Mr Pickett said another possibility is for the council to use its current adult fleet of vehicles to “work creatively” to utilise that provision.
He said parental mileage may be offered where appropriate too.
It is also proposed to undertake a review of the membership of the School Transport Appeals Panel with a proposal that representatives from SEND, health and social care sit on the panel.
Coun Trisha Long, chairman of the scrutiny panel, asked for another meeting to be held so councillors could develop a better understanding of the actual ramifications of the proposals.
The Labour councillor also asked if a “smarter” set of proposals could be put forward that include timeframes and potential impacts.